The Pharaoh’s Underwear
By Daniel Meyerson
The king’s underwear or a historical document–what was in those chests?
Like a river branching into many streams, there are endless fascinating side issues related to Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Take the chests supposedly containing Tut’s underwear: when Carter first opened them he took the folded linen inside for scrolls–documents perhaps containing valuable historical information. His partner, Lord Carnarvon, wrote to a friend anticipating what scholars would make of the new material. Carter soon changed his tune, stating that he had only discovered the king’s linen underclothes, that there were no historical writings in the tomb, and blaming his mistake on poor lighting.
But we know that as Chief Inspector of Antiquities he was one of the first to use electricity inside the tombs. Furthermore, we know that Carter was not above stealing objects from the tomb. Some small pieces are on display at the Met today (labeled “provenance unknown”), other minor pieces he’d taken were returned to Egypt after his death by his niece, and one, a wooden sculpture of the boy king arising from a lotus–a world class work of art–was found stored away in a wine crate and not included in the list of Carter’s finds (Egyptian officials searched the site when Carter was “locked out” during the legal dispute over who would get what).
Especially interesting was the enigmatic threat Carter made during this difficult time. A British embassy official refused to help him in his struggle with the Egyptian government and Carter, enraged, blurted out that he would reveal to the world the other side of the Exodus story. Had Carter, in fact, uncovered material relating to the Exodus–a contemporary account, in fact? In that case, he would have stumbled on a story recorded over a thousand years later by the Egyptian priest Manetho: in Greek, Manetho wrote of an oral tradition, passed down for centuries, of a leader who had gathered together Egypt’s lepers and outcasts, people who reviled the gods and hated humankind. After oppressing and destroying Egypt, these criminals finally left the land. Could this be what Carter was referring to in his outburst at the British embassy–an indiscreet revelation that he had actually discovered historical writings, not underwear, and perhaps had sold them for his own profit?
IMAGE: Howard Carter, May 8, 1924. National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress. Courtesy of author.